Cartoon satire has race, politics in its crosshairs

`Boondocks' creator calls himself an entertainer, not a leader


Aaron McGruder has a message for fans of The Boondocks as he brings his controversial comic strip about two African-American brothers living in a mostly white suburb to late-night cable TV: Don't come looking for revolutionary social commentary on pop culture and race. The primary goal of the 15-episode animated series starting tonight on the Cartoon Network is to entertain.

"I don't think anybody cares about the truth that you're telling, if you're not funny - at least, if you're a satirist," the 31-year-old University of Maryland graduate said in a telephone conference call last week. "The priority ultimately is to be funny. ... And that's what I'm trying to be with this show - funny and entertaining."

While one might think McGruder would be pushing all kinds of envelopes of acceptability, given the freedom found in the relatively unregulated world of late-night cable, he admits that he has already self-censored his show more than once - and allowed his corporate bosses at Sony to do some censoring as well. As executive producer, McGruder said he took out satirical references in two episodes to civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks after she died on Oct. 24. Furthermore, at the behest of Sony, he also deleted any visual depiction of talk show host Oprah Winfrey from a third episode.

"We're always self-censoring," said McGruder, who grew up in Columbia, but now lives in Los Angeles. "This idea that someone lets me just say or do anything I want is not really true. Creative freedom is only yours until somebody takes it from you, i.e., the person paying the bills. They give that to you with the unspoken message: `Now don't act crazy, don't do anything stupid.' And that kind of discussion - `we can joke about this, but we can't joke about that' - happens every day with the strip and the show."

Might offend some

That doesn't mean the man whose comic strip has often been pulled or edited by the 350 newspapers that carry it is neutering his work for TV. Eight-year-old Riley Freeman and his 10-year-old brother, Huey, do not go gentle into TV Land - at least not in the first two episodes that were made available for screening.

The first words of the pilot are spoken in voiceover by Huey: "I am not a prophet, but sometimes I have prophetic dreams like the one where I am at a garden party." The screen fills with the image of a garden party populated by white people - and a microphone that Huey uses to announce to the gathering that, "Jesus was black, Ronald Reagan was the devil, and the government is lying about 9/11."

The remarks seem harsher in print than they sound coming from the mouth of a child cartoon character. But be warned, that child and his brother (both voiced by Regina King) use the "N" word in the pilot - and neither their age nor their animated status are likely to make it sound any less offensive to some viewers.

The pilot also features images certain to give offense, such as Riley pointing his fake laser-sighted rifle at the breasts of a woman and the neck of a postal worker. (Viewers see the targets from Riley's point of view - through the crosshairs of his play gun.)

Next week's episode revolves around the boys' crotchety grandfather, Robert Jebediah Freeman (voiced by John Witherspoon), the legal guardian who brought them from the South Side of Chicago to upscale Woodcrest. Granddad has become infatuated with a prostitute, unaware that she is one. The plot has already been done on Sanford and Son, a definitively old-school sitcom that ran on NBC from 1972-77, but not with language like this - nor with such frankness about what it is that prostitutes do.

Future episodes will deal with R&B star R. Kelly on trial for bed-wetting, Martin Luther King awakening from a coma to find himself accused of being a terrorist sympathizer, and Granddad opening a soul food restaurant in Woodcrest, which leads to a widespread outbreak of heart disease, high cholesterol and obesity among the community's upper-middle-class white residents. An episode featuring the planned kidnapping of Oprah will still air, but no image of Oprah will be shown - in keeping with Sony's dictates.

Rejects `leader' status

Some of satire in tonight's pilot comes from the white patrons of the garden party embracing Huey for his remarks about Jesus, Reagan and 9/11 - rather than being outraged by them. McGruder describes the cartoon story line as "commentary" on the surprising way mainstream newspapers and readers took to The Boondocks after its debut in 150 papers in 1999.

"I don't think anybody could have predicted how quickly the strip found an audience," he said. "But I felt very awkward and uncomfortable being the guy who was out there. Being that political commentator is not really what I want to do for the rest of my life - or even beyond now. I did that, and to be honest, I don't think it really makes a difference anymore. I think as a society we're past the point where someone can get on and say something and really wake people up."

Throughout the conversation, McGruder repeatedly downplayed the notion of his TV show as a forum for race-based social commentary: "It's jokes and comedy," he said. "There are some political jokes, but they're still jokes. I shun the idea that I have some kind of leadership role to play."

Making a distinction between "political entertainers" and "black political leaders," McGruder said it is mistake for the public to expect African-American entertainers like him to fill what he sees as a "void" in black political leadership: "I'm an entertainer - a satirist and entertainer - and that's enough for me. ... I've never said, `The revolution starts here.' There is nothing that I've ever put out that a white corporation hasn't allowed you to see."

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